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Simi Stone photographed by Dion Ogust

We Are Upstate NY With the Multi-Talented Simi Stone

By Sal Cataldi | July 3, 2023

When it comes to homegrown Woodstock talent, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can match the range demonstrated by Simantha Molly Lou Sernaker, better known by her stage name, Simi Stone.

With a Jamaican father and a mother who was a disciple of Swami Satchidananda, Stone fit right into what she calls “the creative hippie culture” of her hometown. By the age of seven, she was studying classical violin and ballet. By ten, she was writing and recording her own songs. In high school, Stone stretched her creative wings further by exploring improv comedy and acting. Upon graduation, she moved to New York City to study in the theater department at Marymount Manhattan College. She quickly became a fixture on the East Village music scene, then nationally, as a part of the groundbreaking Afro-Punk band, Suffrajett.

After garnering rave reviews for two indie albums and multiple national tours with the band, but no major label deal, Simi returned to Woodstock. Once here, she launched an even more impressive solo career, recording with luminaries including Natalie Merchant, The New Pornographer, Gipsy Kings, Simon Felice and Amy Helm. Stone was also a memorable presence as a singer/dancer during David Byrne’s acclaimed 2018 world tour.

While all this was going on, Stone began indulging another talent – as a fine artist. After her breakup with a longtime love in 2014, Stone began exercising her emotions via colorful works, largely pastels and ink drawings on paper. In 2016, she had her first public exhibit at the Ardnaglass Gallery.  Today, she’s back in college working on a fine art degree. And this summer, she’ll be making more strides with her art at a prestigious residency in Rome, Italy.

Stone has a lot to say about the many corners of her creativity. Below is a veritable “boxed set” discussion, one that leaves no stone unturned on her many artistic pursuits.

INSIDE+OUT: You’re Woodstock born and bred. What was it like growing up here and how did the so-called “hippie culture” impact you?

Simi Stone: Growing up in Woodstock was like a mostly beautiful bizarro world, with a gritty undercurrent. We were hippies and children of the hipped, but not the long-haired caricature of flower children. Don’t get me wrong, there was a realness to that. My parents were hippies from the 60s, so they were hip. My dad dressed “sharp” when he was around. My mother was an activist along with my father. Boots and cotton dresses, dropping out of society and fighting the government. Woodstock was the symbol for culture of the era. We weren’t affected by hippie culture; we were the hippie culture.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician, and how did you get your start?

I believe I was born a musician. I was singing and dancing before I could talk. It’s in my blood I suppose. Music chose me.

Comedy improv and painting are also arts that you have explored. How did you develop these interests and how do they impact your music?

I actually wanted to be a comedian starting in 7th grade. I would do stand-up routines at assemblies in school and in the mirror at home. Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams were my heroes. My mom enrolled me into a conservatory for the arts and I began studying theater, acting and dance most days after regular school. I always wrote music and had been studying violin from 7 years old until now.

Music was and has always been part of me, like another heart or brain. It’s always breathing and beating and creating. I’m working on a song on GarageBand as I am answering these questions. It’s an ongoing universe that I tap in and out of. I write songs in my sleep. I edit tracks on GarageBand as my eyelids close on me. The other night my boyfriend turned the lights out and when he put his arms around me in bed he says: “You’re editing a song?” I hadn’t realized I went from looking at Instagram to editing. It’s automatic.

The music business? That’s another story. It’s hot and cold. I still am, after all these years, finding my sea legs in that area again. I feel my best music is yet to come and my relationship to the industry will be in a good and strong place. People ask me: “Are you still doing music?” I’ve have gone back to school to get my fine arts degree in painting, but it always surprises me. Of course, I’ll never stop making music!

Simi Stone performing onstage with her Violin
You left Woodstock to attend college and study acting and music in New York, then became a part of the fertile East Village arts scene. What was it like in those days and how did it lead you to concentrate on music?

I was studying acting and became friends with a group of musicians at school. I ended up joining their band, The Slithy Toves, and falling in love with the singer when I was 18 and he was 19. We all moved out of the dorms and into the East Village. The rock scene was so alive that all I wanted to do was make music and be around artists. My dialect coach in college told me, if I wanted to make rock-n-roll I wasn’t going to learn to do that in a private liberal arts school on the Upper East Side. And I listened to her!

Your first buzz came with the forming of your band Suffrajett, which was a prime driver of the Afro-Punk movement. How did the music-making and the international touring lifestyle impact you and how might it have led to your decision to return to Woodstock?

Actually, I started in the Afro punk movement as myself with four or five other black female-fronted bands. Suffrajett formed towards the middle of that special era of Afro-Punk. It was a beautiful time with sista-girl riots and friendships I still have to this day. We were all so young and being artists in New York. It was a dream world looking back, for a few years there. Myself and then the band started getting amazing press and love from just by being ourselves. My creativity was flowing and the songs kept coming.

I noticed that other bands were getting record deals and careers. However, because of my skin color, the record companies wouldn’t sign me. I didn’t understand it at first. I knew I had the talent. Every big company flew us to LA or came to see us in New York. But they couldn’t see past the color of my skin. It was: “We don’t know how to market her. She’s a black girl playing rock and electric violin!” Even though we were selling out CBGBs and Arlene’s Grocery at the time, it was no dice. My manager finally told me, it’s just pure racism and I’m so sorry. He was white and he was just as shocked. I brushed it off, but it made things harder because we worked out butts off and weren’t getting anywhere. The touring with Suffragett coincided with us moving out of New York to Chicago. It was five years of endless touring, partying and after a while I burned it all down with some help. It was time to come home.

Once back in Woodstock, you really hooked up with some of the town’s more renowned music-makers, joining a band with Simone Felice then, in 2014, beginning your solo career with producer David Barron, with support from heavyweight players like Zach Alford and Sara Lee. What made these experiences, and the Woodstock music scene itself, so special?

When I came home to Woodstock I was able to find myself again. It took a little time. I compare it to finding Jesus or something. Once I found myself, I was led to these great musicians and recording artists. David Baron really supported the process and together we found this incredible source of music. The band came together. They all were best friends already and playing with me was a good excuse for them to hang out together!

Besides your solo work, you have supported some big names, touring with like of David Byrne, Natalie Merchant, The New Pornographers, and Amy Helm. How is this different, and what does this bring to your work?

Being a support for other artists’ visions, be it in the studio or on stage, being a backup singer or an instrumentalist, is an incredible opportunity to make money and live an altruistic path artistically. For a while, it fed me – literally and figuratively. I learned so much and saw most of the world playing amazing places. But at some point, you want to fly free.

What‘s your songwriting process, and which songwriters most inspire you?

My songwriting process is inevitable, as in it just happens. Not sure when, but all I can think is that usually the idea comes all at once, with melody and lyrics. I can’t just pick a topic and write about it. The idea has to come first as inspired by some event or emotional reaction. It’s not complete, but the seed is there. Then the work has to get finished. I’m inspired by too many songwriters depending on the day. The process gets me. Any type of artist whose process is purely artistic I enjoy. Learning to explain your process is a process!

Simi Stone Pastel Artwork Giovannina
Let’s talk about your art. According to your bio, your interest in art came about after a romantic breakup. How does your painting and pastel work co-exist and maybe influence your music? How much of your creative time does it take? And where can interested parties view your work?

Painting and recording music are very similar. For me going in and adding parts, subtracting and molding, is why it is hard to separate one from the other. Time is not quantifiable in terms of creating for me. Time doesn’t exist unless you have to stop for eating or sleep.

Being interrupted can have a big effect on completing a piece. If I have music to learn or write, I won’t allow myself to paint because all of that energy will go to whatever I’m focused on. There is not one valve for painting and one for music – it’s all the same source. So, if I have to practice music for a show or paint an oil for a deadline, I must pick. Which I somehow have the ability to do, so much of my life feels chaotic. But with painting, I can find a place to land and produce effectively. It has helped my musical writing and confidence in my process. Artist Kate McGloughlin is my local hero. I would not be making art if not for her support and encouragement.

Simi Stone Pastel Artwork -Snow Bunny
Self Portrait by Simi StoneSimi Stone Pastel Drawing titled February
In your opinion, why is the Hudson Valley music scene so good? Who are your main local collaborators and those you don’t work with here, but who inspires you most?

The Hudson Valley music scene is so good because of the historical magic in the mountains, the air and the water. Artists and musicians have been coming up here, especially to Woodstock, for over one hundred years. My main collaborators have been Sara Lee, David Baron, Gail Ann Dorsey, Zachary Alford, Chogyi Lama, Natalie Merchant. Elizabeth Mitchell, The Rock Academy, Simone Felice, Bobby Bird, Philip Marshall, Veronica Nunn, Travis Shook, Jeremy Baum, and Manuel Quintana to name a few.

You do a lot of local performances. What are some of your favorite venues locally to play and to hear new music?

The Colony in Woodstock, The Falcon, Levon Helm’s Barn and Ulster Performing Arts Center.

What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?

I have been writing an electro-art record over the last couple of years. It is a concept album and I’m not sure when I will release it, but it will happen. I have also been accepted into The Rome Arts program this summer. I have never been to Italy and will study under some amazing artists. I also have a project called The Shaker with Philip Marshall, a builder and songwriter from Dublin. We plan on releasing some music this year. I’m also back in school finishing my undergrad in Studio Art. Yes, I’ve been a busy girl.
Simi Stone Art Studio

What impact do you, as an artist, have on your community?

I hope it’s a positive one. I know that my community means a great deal to me, and I have gotten so much support for my music and painting. I hope my community knows how much I love them all!

What local businesses do you rely on to be successful in your career and just in enjoying life?

The Cub Market is s food for the soul. Bianca’s Woodstock Framing Shop and Woodstock Music Shop for keeping all my instruments rightly tuned. Also, Caffe and The Colony.

What is missing in the area that you wish we had?

An art supply store in Woodstock, affordable housing for all artists and a good Chinese restaurant.

What would be your dream assignment/gig, as a musician, actor, or artist?

Other than putting on the greatest mixed-media art show on earth that raised money for every struggle, my dream gig would be to host Saturday Night Live and also be the musical guest.

Singer Songwriter Simi Stone
Who or what inspires you personally?

Mythical sightings, music and natural beauty. Very smart and funny people. And the open country.

Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.

I always wanted to be a comedian and I have a phobia of worms. I study The Constitution.

What is your favorite non-musical or literary activity?

Painting and laughing.

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Connect with Simi Stone
Website | Facebook | Instagram @simistoneofficial | Shop Simi’s Artwork

Top Featured Photo by Dion Ogust

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